Our hearts go out to the victims of the natural disaster in Japan. The earthquake and tsunami caused such massive, widespread damage, and the human toll is unfathomable. We hang our heads in disbelief. The landscape of the northern coast of Japan is changed forever, and it will take decades to bring any normalcy back to the area. The uncertainty of further long-term effects that may be caused by the nuclear power plant failures is still unknown.

Even when smaller natural disasters strike — whether it be hurricanes, wind storms or floods — such destruction goes beyond their effect on humans. Whole ecosystems, with all their flora and fauna, are affected. For instance, last year's wind storms around New England took down so many trees that it will take many years for some areas to recover. When trees and habitat are destroyed, it has an immediate and direct effect on the birds and animals that depend on that habitat.

It seems even more poignant when these ecological disasters and resulting habitat destruction are not due to natural causes, but, rather, created by man himself. These fall into a couple of categories.

One is accidents, such as the Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill in Alaska or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These are mistakes, perhaps arguably preventable, but nonetheless errors of the human kind. The intent to harm the environment was not there.

Then there is the other kind of habitat destruction — intentional.

Margo and I have started to do some early "Atlasing" this year, the last year of our breeding block project for Mass Audubon, by revisiting areas explored in previous years to see if we can detect, or even confirm, some early spring nesting birds. A couple of weeks ago, we decided to revisit the Salisbury Rail Trail — actually, the "Ghost Trail" section, as it is called — that runs between Rabbit and Bartlett roads and falls within one of our blocks.

Last year, when we explored this area, it turned out to be very promising. We had wood thrush and veery singing in the forested areas, along with wood pewees, towhees and scarlet tanagers. A pair of red-tailed hawks were hanging around the west end, off Rabbit Road, around a small area that had been cleared for, what looked like, a potential small housing development. That open area was still surrounded by mixed conifer and deciduous trees and provided great "edge" habitat for several bird species. There were large nests in some of the trees that might be home to a hawk, or even an owl early in the season. We found flickers and downy woodpeckers nesting nearby and even a pair of hummingbirds.

On this visit, we decided to start at that west end as it held so much potential. But as we pulled into the small parking lot off Rabbit Road, we just couldn't believe our eyes. Every tree had been cleared as far as the eye could see. Heavy equipment sat idle on this Sunday, and the only evidence of what was there before was a small stacks of logs. But nary a tree, shrub or twig was left standing throughout the area. It was cleared to the houses to the north (which we could not see on previous visits). It was even cleared on the small south side edge of the trail right up to an industrial building and the backyard of a house a little farther east. The nice gravel bike trail that had been built was no longer there, buried in the tracks of heavy equipment.

Our stomachs ached as we decided to walk a small way down what used to be the trail. Last year, there was a small taped-off area to the right of the path that contained lady slippers and a hand-written sign to not disturb the endangered wildflowers. We found no evidence left of that plot. We walked down far enough to see that the barren land went as far as Fox Run Road, a dirt road that comes down off Baker Street. I'm not sure how many acres of vegetation were cleared, but I've never seen such devastation short of a strip mine out west, or a cleared square mile block to make way for a shopping center in Florida.

Needless to say, there was not a bird to be seen or heard, except for one red-tailed hawk that passed over the sparse land, as if in search of the home that was no longer there. Why was this done? Are they strip mining in Salisbury? Are they making way for an airport? Intentional habitat destruction by humans is by far the worst form of ecological destruction. We could only hang our heads in disbelief.

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Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher's Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.

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